Halo developer 343 Studio Head Kiki Wolfkill talks eSports.
© 2014 Microsoft
By John Gaudiosi
March 19, 2016

Microsoft-owned 343 Industries has been involved in every aspect of the development, planning, and orchestration of the inaugural Halo World Championship, which has the largest prize pool in console eSports history with $2.5 million. Kiki Wolfkill, studio head of Halo transmedia and entertainment at 343 Industries, has been a key creative in improving the Halo gameplay experience for the average gamer, while also elevating its potential as an eSports title.

This weekend’s championship event March 18-20 at the Raleigh Studios in Los Angeles, CA. is just the beginning of an on-going global Halo Pro League that will continue to work with eSports giant ESL. But Microsoft and 343 already consider this new push into eSports with Halo 5 a success.

Wolfkill explains how the new game’s multiplayer was designed from the ground up for eSports with modes such as Warzone and Warzone Firefight, and discusses topics ranging from the role of female pro gamers to the crowdfunding prize pool phenomenon in this exclusive interview.

What did you learn from the last Halo game’s eSports gameplay experience that was applied to Halo 5?

Much of the past success of competitive Halo has to do with Halo’s core design pillars as a multiplayer first-person shooter—fair starts, level playing field, and shield mechanics that produce exciting 1v1 challenges. Halo 5: Guardians is a return to those original design pillars, but now with a suite of new mobility options, all running at a blistering 60 frames per second. We knew going into Halo 5 development that we had to evolve the game, while keeping true to its roots. We’re thrilled to see that the community has embraced Halo 5 as an eSport.

How early in the development process did eSports “thinking” become part of the multiplayer development?

For Halo 5: Guardians, eSports was a core consideration from the very beginning. We engaged with members of the Halo pro player community early, as well as used the expertise of the ex-pro Halo players on our own development team, integrating them both into our design process. Our goal was to build an Arena multiplayer experience that catered specifically to the aspiring eSports player, rewarding pure skill-based play within a sandbox that’s hyper-competitive.

How has your studio worked with pro gamers during the development of Halo 5?

Bringing the pro community into the development process was critical for us. We engaged with them from the start and had them visit 343 Industries to help test parts of the game, as well as just give us their raw feedback and input. In fact, we realized that to really polish and balance Halo 5’s multiplayer to where it needs to be, we had to hire our own team of pro players to work alongside our designers to really tighten the game.

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How have you seen eSports impact the way the game industry develops multiplayer?

We’re going to see a lot more game studios develop multiplayer with an eSports-first mentality. In fact, our colleagues over on the Xbox platform team announced at Game Developers Conference (GDC) this week that Xbox One will be releasing competitive gaming APIs to help developers build eSports features right into their titles. Over time, you’ll see teams start to implement more multiplayer features that help increase both the entertainment value of their experiences from a spectator perspective and the competition value from a grassroots participation perspective.

How has 343 been part of organizing the Halo World Championship?

We’ve really put our heart and soul into the Halo World Championship to build an experience that is not only tailored for the pros, but also is an amazing Halo experience for fans and spectators. Partnering with some of the top esports partners in ESL, MLG, and Gfinity throughout the program has helped us learn what is important to both players and spectators and has certainly helped us understand the challenges of staging a global, professional competition. It’s been an incredible few months leading into the finals this weekend, but we couldn’t be more excited to see how the series will culminate and who will come out on top.

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What have you learned about Halo 5 from the way the tournament has been played on a global scale?

Having a truly international set of pro players in this competition has really highlighted the breadth of play styles and strategies that are possible in Halo 5. Beyond the magic of seeing the regional passion behind the teams from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and North America—you also see different play behaviors. This diversity—when you bring it together for the Halo World Championship finals—really leads to some spectacular and unpredictable competition.

What are your thoughts on how good pros are at this game, in comparison to the team that actually makes the game?

The development team obviously knows Halo 5: Guardians well, but nothing compares to the pros who play competitively for a living. It is always 100% our expectation that when we release the game, the pro players will find new ways to engage with both the in-game features (maps, weapons, Spartan Abilities) and each other. It’s been amazing for us to see the incredible skill that has emerged and see the best-in-the-world showcase a level of strategy, motor skill, and communication that is world class.

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We’ve recently seen a push for more diversity in gaming from Intel (INTC) and ESL and CS:GO female pros competing. What opportunities do you see for female pro gamers with Halo?

Diversity is very important to us, both in how we design stories and characters in games like Halo 5: Guardians and when it comes to embracing a broad spectrum of pros for Halo esports. Our Halo community is made up of all kinds of players, and we aim to enable anyone to have a path to pro play with Halo. I’m a huge fan of seeing more female pro gamers on the scene and we’ll continue to explore opportunities with our partners at ESL and MLG.

What are your thoughts on the community’s support of the Halo prize pool through crowdfunding?

It has truly been incredible! When we first announced the Halo World Championships, it was a $1 million prize pool. Since then, the passion of the Halo community has grown the pool to $2.5 million. With the winning team alone taking home $1 million, the storyline coming out of the Halo World Championship will be epic.

Many of the top eSports games are PC titles. What role do you hope Halo 5 plays in growing the console eSports audience?

We see great opportunity with console eSports, which while not new to the competitive scene, is still very much in its early stages. At the end of the day, console players are just as competitive as their PC counterparts and, one thing we’ve learned with eSports is that it’s all about the community and the game. If the game is competitive and fun to watch, it doesn’t matter what platform you’re on—people will come play, and people will come watch.

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